Category Archives: Microsoft

OS Agnostic

OS Agnostic

by Richard White


I try to be OS agnostic. I really do. I started out programming DOS PCs back in the day, made the switch to Apple’s Mac in the early 90s, and Apple’s OS X—based on Unix—was my gateway to Linux in 2005. I now have a number of Macs, three machines that run Ubuntu Linux, and two machines with a Windows installation on them.

I try to keep in touch with Windows. I have a few students who run it on their computers, and I try to pretend I support their OS.

It’s getting increasingly difficult for me to do so, given how annoying that OS is.

You Windows people, you know what I”m talking about.


Legacy vs. Transition


by Richard White


Hello, and apologies for the long absence. You know how things can get busy…

Actually, I’ve got the best excuse of all for being away—I’ve been extra busy this year teaching the new AP Computer Science class this year. Organizing, developing materials for, and teaching that class has taken up just about every spare work moment I’ve had. I’m not unhappy about that at all—having the opportunity to work on any new course, and especially that one—is an exciting experience, and I’ve learned a lot of lessons this year, lessons that I’ll tell you about soon.

In the meantime, let’s talk briefly about Legacy vs. Transition.

Here, I’m referring to legacy in it’s modern digital sense: legacy software is software that is not the most current, but which is still supported to some extent, perhaps by virtue of the fact that it was very popular at one point, and its use is still widespread. (The adjective legacy may be extended to other uses as well, but the software context is a common one.)

Last year Microsoft announced the new version of its venerable Office suite, now called Office 365. Along with whatever features that new software includes, it also comes with a new licensing strategy. Under this new system, a one-time license to use the software is not purchased outright; rather, the user pays a monthly fee for the right to use the software. It’s a classic example of the software as a service model for software distribution, and it’s certainly within Microsoft’s rights to transition to such a model. Google has been doing it for years, and if Google doesn’t charge cash money for the service, I’ve certainly paid for their services in other ways (including my privacy every time I send or receive an email from someone with a GMail account).

After losing the ability to read ClarisWorks (and then AppleWorks) documents a number of years ago, I made the decision to transition to using Microsoft Office products, with the intention of avoiding the kind of data loss that comes from using products that have a shorter lifespan. I have gigabytes of Microsoft Office documents on my hard drive, from my own handouts, worksheets, tests, and letters of recommendation to documents that have been shared with me by practically every person with whom I have a professional relationship.


Microsoft’s new licensing plan, however, was just the impetus I needed to start thinking about transitioning to a new system. I still have the Microsoft Office suite on my computer and occasionally still edit legacy documents using those applications. New documents, however, are being created using LibreOffice, which is a serious attempt at providing free software to support the creation of OpenDocument (.odt) files.

You can see a screenshot of the LibreOffice word processing interface above, and the similarities between it and Word are such that you shouldn’t find yourself too disoriented.

LibreOffice includes translation features to bring Word documents (.doc and .docx) over, and how well your files will be translated depends in part on how hard you’ve pushed Word’s feature-packed capabilities—I haven’t explored those capabilities much yet.

For the moment, I’m just enjoying adapting myself to the new system, and creating a new series of documents that, going forward, won’t require an ongoing investment with the powers that be at Micro$oft.

In the grand scheme of things, working about the long-term viability of your electronic documents might not be something that you want to think about… but it merits some consideration. I have songs made with music mixing software that I no longer have access to. (I have final mixes of the music, but the software itself no longer works; I am unable to create new mixes of the music.)


JPG graphics images, carefully edited and compressed fifteen years ago when dial-up connections were still a thing, look terrible on the high-resolution Retina Display of an iPad. (At least the colors of those images haven’t faded with time, which is more than I can say for the paper-based photos in an old photo album of mine.)

Hardware legacy is something to consider too. I have FireWire hard drives but my laptop doesn’t have a FireWire port. I have Zip disks from the 90s, too, and no Zip drive to put them into. Fortunately, I copied everything from those drives onto a USB external hard drive a few years ago when I did have access to those machines. I was either smart or lucky to have anticipated the transitions that would have to be made happen down the road.

I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all to the challenges posed by aging software and hardware. Some people spend enormous time and energy making sure that they always have copies of everything digital—I tend to lean towards that end of the spectrum, as you might imagine—and others don’t want or need to keep anything of their digital life.

I don’t know any of those people, though, so I can’t really speak to that.


Pick Your Poison: Working with Words on the Computer

PICK YOUR POISON: Working with Words on the Computer


by Richard White

When it comes time to sit down and compose a text-based document, what’s your weapon of choice? Microsoft Word? Google Docs? Window’s Notepad or OS X’s TextEdit? emacs? vim?

Most people have a favorite tool that they use to write with, and in a recent Thinking Stick blog post, Jeff Utecht gives 10 Reasons to Trash [Microsoft’s] Word for Google Docs.” He brings up some excellent points, which are explained in further detail in the post:

  1. No more corrupt files
    A Word file that works on a student’s computer may not work on someone else’s.
  2. No more corrupt USB Keys [“thumb drives”]
    USB flash drives can become lost or corrupted.
  3. .doc .docx who cares!
    Something of a repeat of #1.
  4. Work Collaboratively
    Students can share Google Docs with each other.
  5. Share and Share a Like (sic)
    Something of a repeat of #4.
  6. Export to PDF or Word no problem
    Google Docs can be exported to these formats.
  7. Make it Public
    Google Docs can be published as a webpage for viewing by anyone.
  8. Work from any computer with Internet access
    Google Docs can be easily viewed/edited by you even if you don’t have access to your own computer.
  9. Work on the Go
    Google’s Chrome browser offers some limited ability to work on your Google Docs offline.
  10. Because it’s the future
    “We’re headed into a fully web-based world.”

Jeff does a good job pointing out some of the strengths of Google Docs, especially for high school students which is who this post is targeted towards. And it’s true that Microsoft’s Word is not everyone’s cup of tea. It’s a large, relatively expensive program with an awful interface and a boatload of features that go unused by most users.

But Word is also the de facto industry standard for creating word processed documents. Period. Anyone who is interested in sharing word processing files pretty much has to have Word in their arsenal, and I think that reasoning extends to high school students, or at least those who are able to have access to that software.

Google Docs has plenty to recommend it, and Jeff hits on some of its strengths. Its a great way of developing a shared document with someone, with the ability for two users to work simultaneously on the same file. Documents are auto-saved, and being able to access one’s work from any machine connected to the Internet can be awfully handy. In addition, Docs is free. I use Google Docs on a regular basis for some of my projects, particularly on those in which I am collaborating with someone else.

The bad news is that Google Docs isn’t quite ready for prime time for anything more than the simplest document. The challenges faced (as of 9/24/2011) by this web application fall into two categories:

  1. No offline editing of documents–you MUST have an Internet connection if you wish to work on your Google Doc.
  2. Incomplete feature set (depending on your needs), including
    1. Single style of bullets
    2. Fewer than 20 fonts available.
    3. the equation editor is a good start, but can’t express equations like

    4. etc. (there are others)

Google Docs is excellent at what it does, primarily allowing users to maintain documents “in the cloud” and sharing them with other people. But to suggest that it has become a viable alternative to the many-featured Word is jumping the gun, I think, unless you simply don’t need the features that Word provides.

And if that’s the case, Google Docs will serve you well… or perhaps you can get away with using an even simpler and more robust document creation tool: the humble text editor.

We’ve touched upon this in the past so we don’t need to belabor the point here, but a text editor allows one to write unformatted, ‘plain text’ documents without worrying about nonsense like bullets, margins, bold or italic fonts, etc. (I’m using a text editor to write this post, actually.) At some point in the future, if that plain text needs to be formatted, it’s easy to do so: copy-paste the plain text into your Word or Google Docs document, select (highlight) the text you want to format, and apply formatting from Word or Google Docs as required. Easy.

Working with a plain text file has some of the same advantages that Jeff mentions in his list above.

  1. No more corrupt files
    A text file is a text file. All computers can read them.
  2. No more corrupt USB Keys [“thumb drives”]
    That’s true if you keep your plain text files on a server, which is perfectly possible. (I’m using DropBox and the excellent PlainText app to allow me to work on my plaintext files from multiple locations.)
  3. .doc .docx who cares!
    These extensions indicate Word files. Most people use “.txt” to indicate a plain text file.
  4. Export to Google Docs or Word no problem
    Via copy-paste, plain text files can be dropped in to other documents easily.
  5. Work from any computer with Internet access
    Plain text files stored on a server can be accessed in this way.
  6. Work on the Go
    A local copy of your plain text file can easily be synched with the server later on.

In addition to these benefits, you may discover others:

  1. Plaintext improves your writing
    By allowing you to focus on the words themselves rather than what the words will look like, writing in plaintext improves your writing. Don’t get stuck on the style of your heading, or whether you should italicize a word or not. Just WRITE. You can worry about making it pretty later on!
  2. Start writing faster
    You don’t need to wait 3 minutes for Word to load up or to log on to Google Docs. Open your text editor and start writing.
  3. Smaller file sizes
    Text files are orders of magnitude smaller than the bloated files created by Word—text files don’t have to contain all that formatting information, right?
  4. Improve your Geek Credibility
    The lowly text editor is not the sexiest product out there—after all, Notepad (Windows) and TextEdit (OS X) are provided for free with the operating system. But they’re one of the most powerful tools in the geek’s toolbox. Just ask coder Gina Trapani, Google Director of Research Peter Norvig, author Neal Stephenson, and LifeHacker Kevin Purdy.